Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad: Despot or Visionary?


Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad presents something of a puzzle for Middle East watchers: On one hand, his security forces' pacification of the West Bank has enabled a renaissance of Palestinian economic growth and entrepreneurship, while a greater role for PA security forces has allowed for a somewhat decreased Israeli military presence. But a profile in last week's New York Review of Books suggested that the unelected and perhaps unpopular Fayyad is primarily motivated by the constant fear that Hamas could remove the PA and Fatah from power, a possibility that he's protecting against at all costs. According to the article, "all costs" allegedly includes the torture of political opponents and the cancelation of national elections.

Fayyad spoke at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., yesterday about his much-ballyhooed institution and capacity-building program for the West Bank. It is predicated on the idea that economic growth and government competence are a surer path to Palestinian freedom than armed resistance. But he's proven willing to defend his own long-term vision of freedom through allegedly oppressive means, a tension that should have made for an explosive discussion at NAF.

Instead, Fayyad dazzled an audience of activists and foreign policy wonks, and stuck to largely uncontroversial statements on the need for security and reform in the West Bank. "This program was intended to provide the underpinning of the Palestinian effort to get ready for statehood," he said of the government's "Homestretch to Freedom" package of institutional and infrastructural reforms. "The State of Palestine wasn't going to be founded against the backdrop of a vacuum, but against well-functioning institutions of government." And, apparently, against the backdrop of a Palestinian populace finally convinced that it's capable of solving its problems non-violently. "A sense of self-empowerment started to emerge among our people" he said of the last year of reform efforts. "Those decades [of occupation] have brought them a sense of defeatism, which would manifest itself in one of two ways: either as submissiveness, a sense that there is not really a lot we can do about anything. And the other side of that was belligerence." For Fayyad, the compromise position between total inertia and Hamas-like violent rage is participation in the West Bank's growing economy: in the question and answer segment, he lamented the territory's 14 percent female participation rate in the labor force.

But the more serious issues in the NYRB piece went unaddressed. When he was asked about possible reconciliation with Hamas, he spoke broadly about the (largely theoretical) possibility of bringing the Islamist party into the government, based on mutual concerns like security and infrastructure. But he also said the Palestinian Authority wouldn't accept the existence of armed militias outside of its control.

After finishing his formal answer to the question, Fayyad did something unexpected that turned out to be the most revealing off-script moment of the afternoon. Fayyad greeted the questioner in Arabic; apparently they had worked together in Gaza when Fayyad was an official with the International Monetary Fund. In that moment, Fayyad was unmasked as a market-oriented bureaucrat for whom the vagaries of the Palestinian political process are an annoyance at best and an obstacle at worst. 

Fayyad's framing of the Palestinian political impasse and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a matter of maintaining growth and fulfilling the most basic needs of a beleaguered citizenry is either admiringly optimistic or hopelessly naive. With peace talks in progress again and a year left on Fayyad's so-called state-building program, we may soon find out which.